THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Women – We Hold Up Half The Earth.”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, Executive VP, VFA, November 2018
[More about Mary-Ann at the end of the transcript.]
KR: And we are live. Thank you for agreeing to do an interview today with the Veteran Feminists of America for our Pioneer Histories Project. Do you want to start just by telling me your name?
MAL: Sure. I’m Mary-Ann Lupa and proud to share my women’s movement experience with you.
KR: Great. Tell us a little bit about when and where you were born.
MAL: I was born in Chicago Illinois in a blackout in 1942 to Stella and Joe Lupa in Chicago here at St. Mary’s Hospital. And we lived in the Cragin area, which was a Polish neighborhood. I was raised Polish Catholic – went to all Catholic schools and ending up in Alverno Catholic College in Milwaukee.
KR: So what was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement? What was your everyday life like?
MAL: I think that my goal from a very young age was to become a very proffered artist that would be able to have a career as an artist.
KR: And did you know from when you were very young that art was something where you had a talent?
MAL: No doubt about it. I had that steno pad with little girls with triangle dresses – every page had a different color. It was just – everybody knew that that was an interest to me for a long time. I didn’t know I was going to go into book design. My mother was worried I’d be stuck in some bedroom painting from my heels. So I was very glad to get into the commercial art. And art education was not hiring. So I went into an Art Ed degree but could not get a teaching job without a car.
KR: Oh interesting. So how did you get involved in the women’s movement?
MAL: I actually would have to say Alverno was a big part of that – having gone to Alverno College. I had made a friendship with Mary Jean Collins who was in student government. I was following her as junior class president and she had to show me the ropes. She said we really should get together – and we became very fast friends. And consequently went to any event that came up that she thought might be of value to me. We first actually were active in Father Groppi’s Milwaukee open housing marches together.
KR: During college?
MAL: This was after college with the NAACP.
KR: About what year was that?
MAL: That was in 1967. She and I had the opportunity to march each day because they had contracts in Milwaukee that suggested that minorities could not purchase housing. And that was about a 160-day event of housing marches. Mary Jean had learned that the founders of NOW were trying to – from city to city develop chapters locally of the National Organization for Women.
And so she informed me that there was going to be a meeting at the Sherman House in Chicago, which [became] the Illinois Center. It is now leveled. And that meeting was about 25 people that had these fantastic women at the front telling us about the fact that there was not enough enforcement of Title 7 now that the word sex had been added to the Civil Rights Act.
KR: And this was about what year?
MAL: This was in 1967.
KR: And were you living in Chicago or Milwaukee at that point?
MAL: I was living in Chicago at the time and later moved to Milwaukee. The women that were so impressive to me were Alice Rossi, a social scientist from University of Chicago; Kay Clarenbach from University of Wisconsin, who had been I think head of the Commission on the Status of Women; and Catherine Conroy, who was a labor organizer in Chicago.
KR: Wow, quite a group to initiate you.
MAL: Yes. Their rapport amongst each other – their humor was all-impressive. And I remember being listed in the article about the meeting as the only “artist” present.
KR: Oh, funny, that’s awesome. So what happened from there? Did you get hooked right away?
Chicago Chapter of NOW
MAL: You know I actually had decided to get into a romance and it kind of took me into a different course whereby I had a child that I could not support. I was out of work. And at that point is why I moved to Milwaukee to actually stay with Mary Jean Collins. And we certainly enjoyed the camaraderie. But we were getting very interested in the fact that we were working for human rights.
But the idea of women’s rights – I was having a very difficult time getting employment and therefore we really needed to start concentrating on maybe our own rights. And that’s why it was significant when this meeting came up. And in 1969 I actually moved back to Chicago and became membership chair of the Chicago chapter of NOW, which Mary Jean was then president of. I stayed with NOW for 12 years until 1981 and eventually went from VP to president of the local chapter, which was an experience to behold.
And of course when I met Kathy Rand; Anne Ladky was also an experience that I had encountered in my work at Scott Foresman as a book designer. I had come back to Chicago because of a job to work in language arts. And that work was very satisfying because it was highly illustrative and [involved] handling illustration.
And we had the opportunity to be near the local meeting place for the chapter, which was the YWCA on Wabash Avenue in Chicago. Had many many lunches – I should say dinners at Miller’s right near the YWCA. And that was where we would often prime our meetings too. We met there every third Thursday of the month. And I happened to be president during a period of time from 71 through 73 when the movement was burgeoning.
I read recently that it quadrupled throughout the nation at the time. And that was certainly evident in my meetings, because you’re talking about monthly meetings and 80 people showed up and new people of course, which we were always glad to see. My experience with working with Mary Jean and the chapter was that we were always an action-oriented chapter.
Memorable Actions – Berghoff’s All Men’s Grill
KR: What kinds of issues were you mostly involved in or mostly interested in?
MAL: I remember my first one was actually before I was chapter president. It was at Berghoff’s Restaurant on Adams off State Street, which had a men only grill at the time. And that grill was right across the street from where I worked at one point at Montgomery Ward so I couldn’t run across the street to get a sandwich there very quickly which is what everybody liked.
KR: Only the men were busy enough and important enough to do that.
MAL: Oh yeah. Right. And you know that was in the bar too. So. We decided that in spite of the fact that a lot of people didn’t think that public accommodations were the significant issues at the time – you got to see the word – Keep Out – sign with the men only. And so it was very graphic to be able to go there and picket below the sign that said “Men Only Grill”. And Berghoff’s was one of the oldest restaurants in the city. Very very popular.
Well to our surprise, a bar room brawl started. I did not get inside of Berghoff’s, however some guys started pushing the women that came in to be spokespeople. One person was Mary Jean Collins in that instance and consequently we were written up by Mike Royko as having been part of a bar room brawl by putting together our actions. So that was one of the main memorable ones. We had several.
We had another grill – Carson Pirie Scott had that, was also men only. And they even opened a third one which seemed to be not too smart at the time when we were actually being very evident that this was not appreciated by the women of the city and men in many instances. So that really to me was one of the memorable events. Before I became president, because we were so small, there were women that we met and they were putting together chapters was so that the national organization could be prominent in all areas of the states.
When we were being given national direction, which was helpful, they suggested that we picket in front of the Health Education and Welfare building in Chicago. And there were only maybe five of us but we represented Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois, which was helpful too. The other thing I have to say about being president is – I was not the charismatic president probably – I was more of the practical – seeing to it that we had an agenda. We started on time, we ended after having taken people’s suggestions – we were always open to various ideas.
Memorable Actions – The Executive Club – Men Only
And at one meeting we had a woman, Nan Wood who had been producing Geiger Counters in her own factory above the Hyde Park Bank. And she was older than all of us and she was in fact a Republican. Most of us were Democrats.
And she came and said that the Executive Club would not permit her to come to a special luncheon with Melvin Laird of the Department of Defense who was speaking. And she brought this up at our meeting. And of course you know 80 people say – well we’re going to have to do something about that. So – Kathy Rand wrote a wonderful P.R. statement for me to take there.
Now mind you we were all employed. Some had better jobs than others – none in management jobs and we’d go at lunchtime, which is what this was. Consequently I would say eight of us went to the Executive Club on Michigan Avenue and the issue was to kind of get down the aisle and get to the front podium. And we did – kind of in a wedge.
Meantime gentlemen are stacking up into the lunch places and they were not exactly thrilled with us. In fact there was some booing and hissing that started particularly after I started reading the statement that Kathy Rand wrote for us saying that women should not be prohibited from participating in Executive Clubs if they were members.
What I find very interesting now is I know a whole bunch of CEO women who are members of the Executive Club. That was a shaky knees experience.
But Kathy Rand kept encouraging me to continue reading the statement and for a while because there was TV there – this was the day after the Equal Rights Amendment was passed in the Senate; and I, like my dad, used to always keep a Sun Times [newspaper] around and it had on it – “ERA Passes Senate”.
So I left it on Melvin Laird’s plate when we departed. And with the boos and hisses we didn’t stay too long. I had my mother calling the next day saying Mary-Ann if you’re going to do this, look nice. Well I wanted to say to her, “Mother, they don’t take your coat and hat when you come in unannounced to a luncheon that you’re not welcome at.” But that was an experience and we became summer reruns since the press covered that quite well.
Taking On the Big Corporations
KR: What other issue areas were you involved in?
MAL: Well AT&T. [It’s] interesting that the two arenas that really were big corporations – AT&T and Sears – that NOW was involved in were both employers of my family. And in the case of AT&T my recall is that I think we actually leafleted there – because they had a president called Charlie Brown and our leaflet mentioned Charlie Brown.
The leaflet was actually kind of a news letter to the employees indicating to the women that they were not being promoted – that they were not being paid well and fairly. And so there was again Kathy Rand and I passing out leaflets at the AT&T building. It was known as Illinois Bell at that time.
And we obviously made an impact because I remember years later a woman who worked for Bell telling me she had still saved her check from the back pay that she had gotten from Illinois Bell for the EEOC case that was actually settled in women’s favor. Sears of course was the place where my mother worked. And on my experience there, as president, was actually kind of backing the support of our clever volunteers who wanted to have Christmas be Scrooge visiting the Sears store – which was very large in Chicago – one of the mainstay stores.
And again this was a national action. There were more events taking place across the nation. And we had someone play Santa Claus and someone play Scrooge and actually gave them a dis-credit card, which Wilma Stevens, one of our members made and I have to say that that too was kind of a wonderful opportunity about being in a creative field and deciding that you could get more publicity if you were more creative.
KR: You had lots of opportunities to use your creativity and your artistic skills over the years.
MAL: And one of our partners actually that I worked with made a large dis-credit card that we actually handed to Sears at that point. Credit at Sears at that point – I think one third of the people in the nation had Sears’s credit cards. The store was very much the kind of store that fed people for their needs in Oshkosh jeans – and it was very family oriented.
Yet at the same time the women were sometimes just being given part time employment because they didn’t want to give them benefits. And they were not being promoted whatsoever.
And it was very easy for our Chapter to go into the store and count the number of employees that were female and male. And it was very simple research in a way. And we presented the press with that as well as Sears. But Sears was a long-term battle actually.
KR: And look what’s happened to them now.
MAL: Yes. And I was thinking the same thing that you know somebody really did not read the writing on the wall.
KR: Exactly. You were also on the National Board of NOW correct?
KR: Do you want to talk a little about your experience there?
The ERA in Illinois
MAL: On the National Board of NOW – at that time I was the Illinois ERA Coordinator. Because that would be the other standout moment that I can recall – the national Rally for ERA in Springfield. Because we had gotten such bad – I would say not publicity but our membership in NOW – there were 15 states that had passed the ERA after the Senate vote right away. Well – they didn’t have Phyllis Schlafly. That’s what we had in Alton Illinois.
And actually we have a feeling now in hindsight that she was even more critical than we thought she was at the time, because of her influence in the Republican Party. She was also the opportunity for the Republicans to recruit women to the Republican Party. We saw somebody like that in Sarah Palin. But I didn’t think of her that way until we had encountered Sarah Palin in our history. The National Rally for equal rights was the first time we ever had to have walkie-talkies when we did an action. It’s the first time we had to have port-a-potties.
And actually [it] was very effective from the standpoint that 30 states came from around the country to tell our legislators in Springfield that we needed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. And so our state would have been the 35th state to pass it. And they of course were joking around between the politicians.
Mayor Jane Byrne was in the lead at our rally and I think one of the first people to speak, as well as Mary Jean Collins spoke at that rally. What was expected was 5000 people at that rally. We actually had eight and I heard her and some people even say 10,000 had attended.
KR: It only took 35 more years or whatever for it to have passed – Illinois that is.
MAL: That was an interesting happening in my term of office. By that time I was actually Illinois ERA Coordinator. That was much later. That was 76 – was the national rally for Equal Rights.
KR: So how did your involvement in the movement affect your later life both personally and professionally – did it?
Working With The Women In NOW
MAL: I used to run out of my office leaving the art board behind. And the one thing about being an artist that has to make presentations of what the book design is going to [look like]. And I was the Art Director of Childcraft – a children’s encyclopedia – very illustrative. You can’t fake it. You have to have the actual presentation at the committee meetings and consequently we’d run out at lunch meetings.
But one of the things about being in a group process – producing children’s books was very much a group process – the NOW experience working with women in Chicago NOW [was] really grooming me for a better professionalism if you will; and a better knowledge of how to do teamwork or even influence people like the executives who didn’t think you had the best idea.
So I felt that was very helpful – and… I don’t know if I’d even been promoted to Art Director had I not been involved in the women’s movement.
KR: Have you been involved as an activist in the women’s movement or somewhere else since your second wave experience?
Additional Great Experiences
MAL: I actually got involved in Women in the Director’s Chair because I went into [the] film and video masters program at Columbia College. Unfortunately my dad was very ill at that time and I did not complete that degree. He actually died in that period of time in 1985. But one of my faculty members suggested I look into Women in the Director’s Chair because the fact was and still is – we don’t have many women directors in this society and we hold up half the Earth.
So that was a good experience of actually recruiting women’s films. Being part of the judging group that actually held a regular festival at Facets Multimedia. I was treasurer of Women in the Director’s Chair and I met a lot of talented women as a result of it. Actually it just stopped functioning not too long ago. They were around for quite a while.
The other interesting area that I got into and I think it often has something to do with the fact that – our church wanted to have – they had three women who came to the congregation and said, “Can we have child care?”
And they said they were even willing with your space to trade women off to take care of each other’s children. Well the congregation decided that this could easily be a ministry that a small congregation could support. And they started the First Concordia Childcare Centre and we now have four daycare centers.
And I was on the original council that actually took a abandoned – well it wasn’t abandoned, it was a Catholic parish that was used by the public schools and not needed anymore and therefore offered as a potential childcare facility.
And in the negotiation between the Chicago Public Schools, they wanted a dollar or a million dollars for the property and the building. And fortunately we had an attorney, Dan Formeller in our congregation who was very wise and negotiated. Actually we ended up paying and also giving some scholarships to the city.
But that’s known now as Concordia Place and NAEYC is the accreditation group that actually sets up the standards for childcare.
It’s a sliding scale childcare. And consequently a lot of people who wouldn’t have been able to afford the actual rate are part of our congregation although because money was not there from the state – the other childcare centers that we opened are actually at normal rate. But we still have these two sliding scale and the other two are like supporting. It’s known as a social enterprise.
The Impact of Staying Involved
KR: You’re currently a member of the VFA board. Still an activist – still involved.
MAL: Yes. Can’t stop. Although I think the years that I got married I decided that I wasn’t going to one of the NOW meetings which was in 1982 I think, so I didn’t get to the Houston conference. But it’s a real special experience to be part of The Veteran Feminists. And again I have to say Kathy Rand was the one who called me and said – why don’t you come on the board?
Well as a result of that we had a Chicago reunion that was in 2004 and I think it was very interesting as we all reminisced about the fact that once we were kind of done in our activism in some ways because other parts of our lives took us to be more satisfied – designers or what ever else we went onto.
We realized that we all just parted and that it was sort of sad. And that there was a real value in connecting again. Which is what I think VFA did for me and for a lot of women. And we had a wonderful reunion in Chicago and we still continue to have those with an even more academic bent in some ways with this last event that we had in North Carolina where we had historians asking us what our experiences were.
I’m very proud of the work in VFA and now on hopefully working to help continue the oral history project that you’re so busy with.
KR: Anything else that we haven’t covered that you want to add as we wrap up?
NOW and the Soapbox Derby
MAL: Well I had one experience when I was chapter president that I’ll never forget. And I was working at Scott Foresman at the time where I got involved in children’s book illustration and layout design. And that was a father who had come to us when I was president and said, “My daughter is going to build a soapbox derby with the help of myself and would the Chicago NOW chapter sponsor her?” Because it was the first year that they were actually having girls in the soapbox derby.
I was very familiar with the Akron Ohio soapbox derby because I had cousins in it that lived in Akron. And since they’d asked us to sponsor it and I was a designer – I went out to Harvey, Illinois and actually lettered her fuchsia colored car with Chicago National Organization for Women on it.
KR: That’s very cool.
MAL: And she was not exactly the winner except that she was so proud of doing it.
They took photos of her and it did enter – it was entered in a workbook at Scott Foresman. Because that was another thing in terms of job – that we all had – is in the case of Scott Foresman where I was in language arts and we all reviewed the books that were being set up for reading programs.
Before Sexist Was a Word
We had the opportunity to say things that were – the word that was not familiar was sexist. And I do have the recall – this is another kind of special event where I actually suggested that one of the illustrations they were using was sexist. It was of a young girl leaping up on a chair next to her brother because there was a frog in the basement and she was frightened of the frog.
So I suggested to them that – as I say the word was just being coined – so I suggested that that was sexist and that they probably should change it.
It did not get changed. It went into all the readers and then became a story in The New York book review when they review all the new books that come out indicating that that particular illustration was very sexist.
KR: They should have listened.
MAL: Yes, they should have listened.
KR: The story of our lives – they always should have listened.
MAL: Right. But those are two events that I can’t forget. I also have to say that being in the graphics – I’ve had the wonderful experience of creating for Women Strike Day -which was another valued time in the women’s movement in 1970 when with the legislative NOW coordinator, Ann London Scott, National Coordinator – she asked me to create a button that was Women Strike for Women for the Strike Day – 1970 that Betty Friedan had issued as a call to arms for all of us.
KR: August 26th.
MAL: August 26th 1970. The anniversary of the 50th acquisition of the vote and we had those buttons distributed to everybody. And it turned out that it [the button] ended up in Time Magazine and even a Chicago cartoonist had come up with the clever aspect of having a man and woman holding up the world and the woman had the button around her neck, which was really kind of special.
We followed up with the next year – Women Lobby For Women. Again celebrating August 26th. And the other thing that has gotten publicity even to this day is – “Don’t Iron While the Strike is Hot,” which was one of the creations for their NOW 1970 strike. And that now is in the Schlesinger Library. Actually Harvard asked if they could also put it into their collection.
That was a case of having several artists in our chapter and we were asking people to not iron while the strike is hot but also cover your typewriters and cover your phone hang ups. And therefore we had flyers for each one of these industries and asked everybody to stop. People did not strike for the complete day – but we sure had a turnout for lunch and that group that was at the Civic Center in Chicago spilled into the streets.
KR: I recall.
MAL: So that was the graphics experience as I kind of call it – social action graphics – which myself and many of my colleagues really appreciated being able to make those kinds of contributions, because they always got press attention from everybody.
KR: It lasts forever.
MAL: Buttons get worn.
KR: Mary-Ann, thank you so much – this was fantastic. We look forward to highlighting you on the VFA website.
More about Mary-Ann
As a student, Mary-Ann encountered Sr. Austin Doherty OSF, American History professor who challenged women to know their history and make a personal contribution to improve the world. It made an impact.
In January of 1973, Mary-Ann was active in fundraising for the Abortion Defense Fund to defend several Chicago women arrested for participating in “Jane”, an abortion referral service. After Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion, the women were not prosecuted.
In 1973, at the request of community organizer, Day Piercy, Mary-Ann and Chicago NOW provided the initial leadership in the founding of Women Employed, the single issue advocacy organization that has been in existence for over four decades.
As a result of a pledge drive organized by Mary-Ann and Chicago Treasurer, Geraldine Dahlin, in 1974, Chicago NOW became the first local chapter to open an office with administrative staff, Dorothy Antoine O’Brien.